The Empire talks back

The BBC World Service brings news, music and the thoughts of Ed "Stewpot" Stewart to listeners from Anguilla to Zimbabwe. But now it is under threat - and it's time to call in the cavalry.
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T here is something about the BBC World Service that brings out the sentimentalist in the most unlikely people. The opening bars of "Lillibullero". ("Diddly-dee-de diddly-dum, diddly-dee-de, diddly-dah" to the rest of us) are the most evocative notes to crackle out of wirelesses around the world. And it is only necessary to threaten the World Service with cuts for a crusty cavalry of MPs to come galloping to the rescue.

Once again the BBC's World Service is under threat, the Foreign Office suspending its triennial agreement with the Service and imposing cuts which will result, it is claimed, in a shortfall of nearly pounds 20 million in 1997-98. Enter the cavalry.

The World Service exerts a sentimental hold that other relics of Empire such as the Commonwealth or the British Council cannot begin to command. "Everyone thinks it's a great institution," says a senior broadcaster in the Service. "Everyone tends to think it's the last bastion of broadcasting as it was in the 1950s, broadcasting as it ought to be, the last stand of the spirit of Lord Reith. We benefit from their ignorance."

If these enthusiasts took the trouble to listen, they would discover that the World Service's output, delivered in over 40 languages to 133 million listeners, 35 million of whom listen in English, is madly up to date - or at least so its broadcasters believe. You have disc jockeys like John Peel and Ed "Stewpot" Stewart, sport and humour; not only programmes like "composer of the week" and "folk routes" but exciting slots like "Pop Music Feature" and Andy Kershaw's programme. Not only From Our Own Correspondent and Focus on Faith, but also . . . well, that's about it, in fact.

On second thoughts, all those Conservative MPs are right to rally round: the World Service is indeed a glorious anachronism, its solid, informative, varied, intelligent output spiced with very cautious dollops of (intelligent) frivolity.

Its position in the capital and in our national life is equally quaint: long after the rest of London's journalists have been shunted off to Wapping and White City, those of the World Service sit tight in their neo-classical bastion at the head of Fleet Street, just around the corner from the Law Courts and the Savoy, where the goldleafed motto along the pediment reads "To the Friendship of English Speaking Peoples". And long after the red that once covered the globe has shrunk to a few well separated puddles and pinpricks, Bush House continues to operate a broadcasting service on which the sun never sets, from Anguilla to Zimbabwe, from Vanuatu to Kirabati to Tonga and beyond.

Of course, if it were truly half as anachronistic as the Empire, Malcolm Rifkind could save himself not merely pounds 4.5 million (the cut in capital funding announced for next year, 20 per cent of the total) but a full pounds 150 million per year by axing the whole service. The truly surprising thing is that today, after the passing not just of the British Empire but of the Soviet Union's, too, it still has a role to play.

That this should be so owes much to the forceful and intelligent leadership of the Service's last managing director, John Tusa, who, while running the place "like his personal barony" (in the words of one of his staff) succeeded in giving it a new and clearer sense of mission.

Writing in this newspaper more than three years ago, Tusa spelled out the effort needed, after outliving the historic spasms of fascism, the Cold War and decolonisation, to find "a more inclusive theoretical definition for its long term editorial purposes".

"We sought a theoretical framework for international broadcasting from Britain that would not turn on the hinge of a particular political dispute or ideological difference, nor one particular period of history or the immediate needs of a particular part of the globe," he wrote. The criteria for the material to be broadcast, he added, were that "It must be relevant to all audiences worldwide . . . It must appeal to a global rather than an elite audience. It must be `international' rather than foreign." This is what the Service's small but discerning band of addicts within the UK continually turn to it for: true, global perspective.

The Service's broadcasts, Tusa wrote, can do a multiplicity of different things for different people. "In part the broadcasts operate like aid, transferring knowledge and skills; they have an element of cultural advertisement; they are an instrument of informal diplomacy; they bring individuals in touch with a nation . . . "

With the help of Tusa's new map of the future, the World Service has been undergoing something of a renaissance in the past few years. Threatened cuts in the early Eighties nearly forced the closure of services like the Burmese, which typify the most readily justified parts of the service: transmissions to people whose oppressive governments deprive them of access to other reliable sources of news. But later in the decade capital budgets actually increased, enabling a dramatic improvement in transmission facilities, and a consequent jump in the listening figures.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the Service found itself with another new role, and another great tranche of hungry new listeners; but, attentive to Tusa's warning not to allow itself to become too defined by particular disputes or historical events, it has survived the passing of that crisis with almost all its European services intact. By contrast, Radio Free Europe, defined by its mission to help bring down totalitarian regimes, ran out of steam once that goal was achieved. Voice of America, the Service's other main competitor, far more overtly a mouthpiece of the American government and the American Way, has made a much poorer fist of adapting to changed realities.

A further boost to the World Service came towards the end of John Tusa's spell in office when it managed to gain the right to start and stop broadcasting to particular places and in particular languages, as and when it chose. Previously all such decisions had been in the gift of the Foreign Office - when, for example, a special service was planned to refugees in the Arabian Gulf during the Gulf War, Foreign Office approval was required (and, in this case, given). "Crisis response" of this sort - a similar temporary service in local languages was set up during the exodus of refugees from Rwanda - can now be put into effect promptly and without red tape.

The Macedonian language service, introduced last week, is another example of autonomy in action. What could be more esoteric, you might think - but this service brings objective news not only to Macedonians but also to 2.5 million Serbs and Bulgarians, at a crucial moment in the Balkans' history. At the end of 1994, another new service was inaugurated, this one to Central Asia, beaming news to the confused and disaffected peoples of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

All such initiatives cost money, of course; and successive cuts in the past five years have, insiders claim, wrung the World Service as dry as a dishcloth. Although the pillar of the Service will always be news, introduced by the famous announcement "This is London" and the bouncy rendition of Lillibullero (wonderfully redolent of 1950s radio, of Uncle Mac and Larry the Lamb), its pride and much of its appeal is that it is not only informative but interesting. "The good thing is that there's always been a rich mix," says a staffer, "a lot of separate features on different subjects. Now many of these are disappearing."

Last year's cuts led to the closure of the French language service to France - a legacy of Resistance days - and, more depressingly, the shutting down of Radio International, the in-house service selling (at less than cost) tapes of World Service programmes to places, for example in the South Pacific, with only skeletal radio services of their own.

On the `Today' programme yesterday, Mr Rifkind said "we would be out of our tiny minds" to allow the foreign language services to close, but sources in the corporation are grimly definite that this will become inevitable if the cuts Mr Rifkind wants to enforce are not reversed.

It's a story of poverty-stricken success, vagrant celebrity, a blanket of words encircling the world that grows more threadbare year by year. Is that the only fate the World Service can look forward to? Permanent reliance on a Foreign Office happy to pass on its Treasury-induced pain?

More radical possibilities beckon. Integration of newsgathering and reporting with BBC Television and domestic radio is an idea that is often raised. At present, correspondents are shared around among the different arms of the corporation, and there seems to be little redundancy - but full structural integration would surely lead to drastic economies. The World Service, however, would fight this idea to the death, fearing with justification that they would be consigned to a Cinderella role, with their rarefied and exotic work a permanent loser.

The commercial world of World Service Television offers another, tantalisingly profitable-looking future. Launched some four years ago, its aim was to harness the World Service's journalistic resources to providing a global television service to make Ted Turner's CNN look ridiculous (not, in fact, too hard to do). Now World Service Television has teamed up with Pearson, who own Penguin and the Financial Times, but it has yet to fulfill a fraction of its potential. "It desperately needs to compete," says an insider, "but it can't get enough partners."

Turning any organisation created on the public service ethic into one oriented to profit is bound to be hard; taking the most Reithian, public service-oriented part of the Beeb and forcing it to become the corporation's cutting edge may prove an impossibility. Poverty-stricken success may be the best variety the World Service can hope for.

Days of Orwell and Petula Clark: everything you wanted to know about the World Service

l The BBC Empire Service (known as the World Service since 1988) was launched on 19 December 1932. Its aim, in the words of Lord Reith, director-general of the BBC, was to become "a connecting and co-ordinating link between the scattered parts of the Empire".

l It now broadcasts in 42 languages, including English. The first foreign language service was in Arabic (1938); the service now extends to Uzbek (Uzbekistan), Azeri (Azerbaijan) and Sinhala(Sri Lanka, southern India).

l Listeners have increased from 120 million a week in 1990 to 133 million now. This excludes the areas where audiences exist but market research doesn't - China, Burma, Afghanistan.

l English speakers, of whom there are 35 million, make up the largest group of listeners; Hindi speakers are the next largest at 24 million, then Urdu speakers (16.5 million) and Arabic speakers (11 million).

l Among the World Service's broadcasters have been George Orwell (Eastern Service, 1941-43), Petula Clark (made her debut on the Overseas Service, 1942), Thomas Mann (wartime broadcasts on the European Service) and TS Eliot (wartime broadcasts to India).

l Countries that have attempted to ban the World Service include the Soviet Union, which jammed the airwaves for 24 years during the Cold War, and finally allowed the BBC to creep through in January 1988. Since then Libya, Iraq, and China have all attempted to stifle BBC transmissions.

l Most significant broadcasts include George V's address to the Empire in 1932, the first Royal Christmas broadcast; General Charles de Gaulle's speech on 18 June, 1940, calling the French to stand firm against the German occupiers; and Mrs Thatcher's phone-in programme on the Russian service in 1988.

l Listeners said to have been inspired by the World Service include Beirut hostages John McCarthy and the late Jackie Mann; Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese campaigner for democracy and Nobel Peace Prize winner; and students from the Tiananmen Square demonstration.